Skip to main content

Zero: the biography of a dangerous idea – Charles Seife ***

There are two books on zero, The Nothing that Is by Robert Kaplan, which we reviewed in a rather summary fashion some time ago, and Zero, which slipped through the net first time around, but is now out in a new paperback edition.
In Zero, Charles Seife tells us very effectively why zero is so important to mathematics (and would help the calendar be less confusing). He gives us a good, if relatively short, exploration of the origins of zero, how it came from Indian mathematics, through the Arab world into European maths. So far, so good.
Seife writes in a very approachable and enjoyable fashion. He does have a major weakness, though, which is a tendency to imply wildly overblown consequences to provide dramatic tension. So, for example, he tells us ‘Zero was a the heart of the battle between East and West.’ Really? That battle had nothing to do with trade, power and religion, it was all about zero? Again we are told that because Western calendars do not have zero (the number line goes straight from -1 to 1), it was an oversight that would cause problems millennia later. These problems seem to amount to the argument over whether 2000 or 2001 was the first year of the new millennium.
The other problem with this book is that at least three quarters of it isn’t about zero. A lot of the early part is about the void and infinity. He goes on and on about the Greeks’ dislike of a vacuum and of the infinite, making this such a big thing that he totally plays down Aristotle’s very important concept of potential infinity. But these aren’t zero. ‘The void’ is the concept that before creation there was a vast, perhaps infinite nothingness into which a creator brought light, matter and life. (Seife never mentions that most of these ‘voids’ actually had water in them in the original myths, because this doesn’t fit with his shaping of the story.) But that isn’t zero. And, of course, infinity isn’t zero either. Nor is the vanishing point in perspective drawing, yet, this too, he equates with zero.
Much of the rest of the book is about infinity, black holes, relativity and wormholes in space. Interesting stuff, quite well presented apart from the very dated looking line drawings, but covered better in other books – and in the end not about zero. So, it’s a real paradox. It is a good, readable book, even if the author is given to grand gestures, but most of it doesn’t do what it says on the tin. If you want a book that concentrates more on the subject, take a look at Kaplan’s – if you want a whistle stop tour of infinity, black holes et al with some zero thrown in (and a lot of woffle about infinity and the void) this is the one for you.

Paperback:  
Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

How to Drive a Nuclear Reactor - Colin Tucker ****

How To Drive A Nuclear Reactor does exactly what it says on the tin. The book is a general overview of nuclear reactors. From the basic principles that make them work through to what buttons to press in what order (and of course how and why they can go wrong).Nuclear power could be a good step on the path to a greener energy future, but there is a lot of understandable fear. This book can give some idea of what an incredible feat of both science and engineering one of these machines is and, hopefully, make anyone reading it feel far more comfortable about them.The book presents information about everything, almost down to the literal nuts and bolts, giving you a near complete understanding of how a nuclear works. From putting in the fuel to getting out the power and down from the control panel to the construction material. Everything you could ever want to know is here. By the end you'll likely feel ready to walk into a control room and get started (do not try doing this, nuclear …

Being Mortal - Atul Gawande ****

I heard recently that the local geriatric ward puts a photograph of the patient in his or her prime by each bed. The aim is to help staff to treat their patients as individuals, but it makes me uneasy. Do these people only matter because of what they were, not what they are? Because once they stood proud and handsome in their uniform, or looked lovely on their wedding day?

Professor Atul Gawande has the problem surgically excised and laid out for inspection in one of his unflinching but compassionate case studies:

‘What bothered Shelley was how little curiosity the staff members seemed to have about what Lou cared about in his life and what he had been forced to forfeit... They might have called the service they provided assisted living, but no-one seemed to think it was their job to actually assist him with living – to figure out how to sustain the connection and joys that most mattered to him.’

Gawande is an eminent surgeon. As a young resident he displayed little overt emotion when hi…

Twenty Worlds - Niall Deacon *****

This is a truly entertaining and informative book, but the reason I’m giving it the full five stars has as much to do with the refreshing novelty of the author’s style as anything else. There’s novelty in the subject-matter too – the wide variety of recently discovered exoplanets orbiting other stars – but even so this is the third book on the topic that I’ve read. The first two were a lot less fun to read, and (without naming and shaming the authors) it’s worth a brief diversion to explain why.The first author was a university professor with a vast knowledge of the subject, who seemed determined to convey the entirety of that knowledge without stopping to think whether it was interesting or necessary for a general audience. The second author – another academic – took a different but equally tedious approach, with a plodding chronological account that focused as much on the dull routine of the scientists involved as on their work.Niall Deacon doesn’t make either of those mistakes. He’…